July 2005

Pauls Toutonghi

nonfiction

Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement by Rodney Rothman

Howard Stern -- you’d imagine -- doesn’t attend a lot of book readings. Despite his self-proclaimed title as "The King of all Media," Stern uses his radio show to explore the less savory side of our popular culture, focusing his attention -- almost exclusively -- on the porn industry and its various sideshows.

So I didn’t expect to see Stern lurking at a midtown Manhattan Barnes & Noble, attending Rodney Rothman’s reading of his new memoir, Early Bird. As it turned out, my expectations were not entirely disappointed: Stern left early. He was gone after ten minutes, dragging a six-foot tall blonde in his wake. The next day Stern’s website claimed that he spent the rest of the night watching American Idol.

With or without celebrity guests at his readings, Rothman has managed to create quite a buzz around his memoir. NBC was interested in optioning it as a cast-contingent sitcom, and luminaries such as John Stewart, Nick Hornby, and Dave Eggers have been saying good things about the book. You can almost hear the nervous whispering of the network execs: Could this be the next Friends -- but with a geriatric twist?

The premise of Early Bird screams NBC sitcom. Rothman -- a 28-year old, former head writer for the Late Show with David Letterman -- gets fired from his job working for a sitcom in Los Angeles. He decides, after some not-so-extensive soul-searching, that he’s sick of working. He can’t think of something that he’d be interested in doing. “'I’m Jewish,' I say to myself one day. 'I’ll end up retired in Florida anyway. Why not get a head start and check it out?'”

His idea is simple: He will go to Florida for a few months, live in a retirement community, and write about the things he sees. He pitches this idea to his agent, and his agent, in turn, gets him a book deal. Rothman’s editors at Simon & Schuster knew what they were doing: He’s funny. And far from being a one-note book, Early Bird constantly surprises the reader with its depth.

Rothman introduces his readers to a compelling cast of characters -- all of whom live with him during the four months he spends in Century Village, a sprawling retirement community outside of Boca Raton.

There’s Margaret, his roommate, the eccentric widow with the belligerent parrot. There’s Amy Ballinger, the 93-year-old, former stand-up comedian whose answering machine message says,“Hi, it’s Amy; I’m not in. I’m out lookin’ for a millionaire who takes Viagra. If I don’t find one, I’ll call you back.” There’s Bob Hover, the retired soap opera star who teaches a high school acting class in Sarasota.

With these characters and others, Rothman has an eye for the key detail, the amusing note that will make them come alive on the page: "Harvey is round and Al is very skinny. They’re a funny pair; they look like Mister Rogers crossed with Ernie and Bert. They’re both widowers, and wear extremely yellow cardigan sweaters. It never seems to bother them when they show up in the same outfit."

But Rothman doesn’t forget that these are people who have had long -- and in many cases difficult -- lives. They’ve lived through their own particular tragedies; they’ve lost spouses and children and endured the hardships of the Second World War.

That’s not to say that Rothman is a deft prose stylist. His sentences are often abrupt and choppy. He makes too many sacrifices for the one-liner, and these one-liners are not always funny. Also, there’s a certain discomfort in reading the book at times. You occasionally feel like a detached voyeur -- observing the steady decline of a group of old people but still laughing about it.

And yet you keep going. By the end of the memoir, you can’t help but be moved. The concluding chapters have power, and they provide an emotional weight that might be difficult to replicate in the sitcom format:

If I met my own Morrie, he and I would share uplifting deathbed rap sessions deep into the night. The nurse would come to door and say, “Aren’t you two getting tired?” and he would laugh a wheezy laugh, wave her off, and launch into another compelling anecdote about making love to a Russian lit grad student while inside a canoe… But I haven’t found any Morries down here yet… I don’t think Tuesdays with Morrie would have been so uplifting if that guy had to spend more than Tuesdays with Morrie. By Thursday he would have been cursing Morrie out.

All in all, Rothman has written a unique and interesting memoir, something that’s hard to do in this age of over-indulgent self-reflection. With the right cast -- and the firm determination to eschew even the slightest resemblance to The Golden Girls -- it could be a point of light in the otherwise dismal network sitcom lineup.

Early Bird: A Memoir of Premature Retirement by Rodney Rothman
Simon & Schuster
ISBN: 0743242173
256 Pages